Last summer, Geniva Dickson invited me to photograph a visit to her son’s grave. Kas, who was 21, had been on his way home from drinking with friends last year when another friend pulled up in a stolen car and told him he’d drive him home. As Kas fell asleep in the car, the guy took him for a joyride that turned into a police chase and ended with the crash that killed Kas. Four months later, his son, Kas Jr. was born. As part of my work documenting Rest in Peace memorials around Newark, I was going to go with Geniva to take a picture of the baby’s first visit to his father’s grave.
We spent weeks planning to get together. Finally, on a hot and humid August day, I followed the family on the way to the cemetery in my car. They stopped to buy flowers and alcohol for the ritual of taking a drink and then pouring a little onto the grave.
When we got out of the car at the cemetery, I fell behind, adjusting my camera. Then I heard sobs and screams. Running to the circle around the grave, I saw Geniva crying, yelling and shaking her head: “The grave is gone!” cried Geniva, covering her mouth. “It’s not here no more. This is crazy!”
She walked around the bulldozer tracks where her son’s grave had been. “Talk about disrespectful–running right over Kas’s grave to make another one. It’s crazy. Who could do such a thing?” A few feet away was a metal plate that covered a new grave.
The loved ones tried to figure out where the grave had been. Finally they decided on a spot, and placed flowers and built up stones for a new marker there.
Crime may be down everywhere, but for some people violent death is still a part of everyday life. In places like Newark, East Orange and Irvington, New Jersey, mothers are still fearful to let their sons out of the house. People don’t go outside at night. “Everyone expects to die, but nobody expects to be killed,” says Jerome, holding out his wrist with an RIP tattooed on it for his dead friend Cocoa. “But in the ghetto, you expect to be killed.”
There is Dana, 19, shot point blank last year outside a dance club by a retired policeman. Bucshot was 21 when he got shot outside a liquor store in an argument over some beer. Then there is Carl from Newark, 16 years old, shot while walking to a bowling alley with a group of friends. He went into a coma and died shortly after.
The survivors’ respect and grief for the deceased spill onto the streets, sidewalks, walls, telephone poles and abandoned buildings, anywhere a shrine of love can be created: at the exact site of death, nearby, or where the victim lived. Sometimes the memorial shows up on the nearest building where a mural can be painted, or where bottles or candles can be stacked. In a world where a grave or a life can be erased in moments, it’s through the rituals of building and tending memorials that these victims of violence are mourned and remembered.
RIPs as street graffiti memorials evolved from many different sources; one theory has them evolving from the Mexican Day of the Dead and coming up through California. I started asking people how the custom of street RIPs began. “We took the idea from tombstones in the cemetery, except we write our words of love on walls,” says Carl’s friend Red, from 27th St. in Newark. “They have candles in the churches to light and pray. We took them into the streets and do the same thing.”
I recall Omar from East Orange telling me that on RIP anniversaries, as people come to pay their respects, beside lighting the candles and praying they leave things that the victim cared about–work shoes, a hat, a scarf, teddy bears, mementos.
Sitting around Dana’s RIP on the porch on 16th Street by South Orange Avenue, his family talked about what happened to him and how they mourn his death. Dana never drank, says his grandmother, Mrs. Mordell Dorch, but when he was shot they still used liquor as part of the ritual.
Someone else mentions that in the churches they pour and drink wine. “We do the same, except we tip some for our friend onto the grave, pour a little out of respect to the deceased, and then have a drink for him,” says Dana’s cousin Keera. “We drink liquor to ease the pain–like you laugh so you don’t cry. The liquor is like Novacain to ease the pain.”
“There are different ways of mourning,” agrees Karriem, a friend of Dana’s. “Black people mourn by using liquor as an outlet.”
Liquor at a memorial is also a sign of respect. Putting the brands together–E&J brandy, gin, scotch, champagne–honors the dead. “You have to keep the bottles in a straight line and the brand names together. That’s how people show their love and respect,” said Carl’s friend Red. “The more neat it is, the more respect. You can’t just throw them up there in anyway, that shows you don’t care. Take a sip and say a prayer, and then line up the bottles.” Grieving loved ones visit shrines regularly, often to leave more bottles or to light candles.
Carefully tending the shrines is a battle against impermanence; the painted memorials, especially, are often painted over or removed. “I don’t want to mess up the wall, I just got to let it be seen, known that he still has love around here,” said Red, who makes regular visits to his RIPs for Carl. “As long as you see his name,” Red said softly, “he will never be without us. I acknowledge that he’s not here, but when I write his name that makes him still here with me. If I walk down the street and I see this name, I know he’s not here physically, but he’s here mentally in my heart.”
“Every time they knock down a building where Carl’s name is or scrub it off, I put a bigger one up somewhere else.”
Helen M. Stummer is the author of No Easy Walk, Newark, 1980-1993, published by Temple University Press. She will be having an exhibit in Newark at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art later this year, entitled, RIP (Rest in Peace): Sites, Losses and Hope.